October 12, 2023

Why is the Georgia National Fair in Perry?


There’s almost always a backstory to the story.

            But first, what’s the story?

            Down in Middle Georgia—perched on the Gnat Line—the 34th annual Georgia National Fair (GNF) is expected to draw more than 550,000 visitors. On opening day, Oct. 5, I was one among the masses.

            In attendance comparison, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum—in Cooperstown, New York—pulls in almost 300,000 guests annually.

To put it another way, in early October each year, the Georgia National Fair’s attendance equals more than five sold-out Sanford Stadiums, home of the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs.

That’s a mass of folks fanning gnats and soaking up the experience. But that doesn’t include another almost half-million people, who come for other events at the mega site perched on the east side of bustling I-75.

So, what’s the backstory?

What you see today started in the early 1980s, when a parent—a member of the Georgia General Assembly—took his son and daughter to show their pigs at the state fair in Macon. My friend frowned and reminisced, “Basically, what you had were two spigots and a mudpuddle for the kids to wash their animals. And you could write your name in the dust on the seats.”

That parent—Rep. Larry Walker Jr.—felt Georgians deserved something better. He went to work with the help of his friends under the Gold Dome, including Gov. Joe Frank Harris, Speaker Tom Murphy and the House chairman of the agriculture committee, Rep. Henry Reaves.

When Houston County was chosen for the new, state-of-the-art fairgrounds, there were skeptics of the location. The editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it a “boondoggle.”  Fast-forward to 2023, and about 1 million guests pour into Perry’s “boondoggle.” Fast-forward to 2023, and about 1 million guests pour into Perry. It’s only fitting that GNF’s I-75 exit is named the Larry Walker Parkway.

Here are some of my thoughts from this year’s visit:

§  Give a blue ribbon to the leadership for keeping the Georgia National Fair family-oriented and alcohol-free. GNF is a haven for fun, entertainment, recognition of achievement and education. Thank you, chairman Foster Rhodes, the fair board and executive director Stephen Shimp.

§  Contrary to what Abe Lincoln proclaimed, all people aren’t “created equal.” If you don’t believe me, walk through the Murphy-Miller-Howard exhibit building. The entries in crafts and fine arts are mind-blowing. How do those people do that?

§  People-watching is a favorite attraction of mine. Funnel cakes, fried Oreos, turkey legs and corn dogs fueled the throng’s energy. Popular among our grandkids were the “walking tacos,” south-of-the-border fixings on top of bags of Fritos and Doritos.

§  People tease me because I think that there’s a hometown connection everywhere. Well, usually I can find one. GNF’s executive administrative assistant grew up in a pew in front of our family at Jesup First Baptist Church. I couldn’t go to the fair without saying hello to Charla Parker Ellerbee.

§  My favorite stops—always—are in the animal barns. I witnessed one young man—in a motorized wheelchair—leading his heifer through a throng of pedestrian traffic. Amazing. Sixteen-year-old Audrey Brown of Oglethorpe County estimated that over the past year she has invested 1,000 hours in working with her heifer, GG, to get ready for the trip to Perry. There are hundreds of stories just like that. This is wholesome Americana at its best.

Yeah, I am a big fan of the Georgia National Fair and its backstory.

What you see today will keep growing and improving, year after year. And just imagine, it all started with Larry Walker’s vision and determination to see beyond “two spigots and a mudpuddle.”